10th – 18th August
A welcome change
Love at first sight? If ever a border crossing between two countries has engendered such a possibility for us, it is here.
At the top of the Khunjerab Pass, we leave the razor wire of China behind and receive the most unexpected and friendliest welcome from any border guards yet. There are only a few of them at this remote spot, lounging around, smoking, smiling and generally doing all manner of things most un-Chinese, which is a delight. We can take a photo of the pass from here; unsurprisingly enough we couldn’t from the other side.
From the top of the pass the road carves an impossibly narrow and treacherous line down the Khunjerab Gorge, surrounded on either side by innumerable rocky and snow clad peaks, most over 6,000m and some well over 7,000m. It is stunning, yet austere scenery – there is no vegetation here and the steep gorges lead to numerous rockfalls and landslides making mincemeat of the road.
All along the way, friendly local road repair teams stop, smile and wave at us, seemingly unfazed by the difficulty and futility of their never-ending Herculean task. We are lucky as today the road is clear – it is not uncommon to be stuck up here for a day or two whilst a digger removes the latest pile of heavy grey debris that has plummeted from the heights.
The first village this side of the border is Sost, 90km from the border and the site of the Pakistani customs post. Formalities here are refreshingly friendly and quick. We have procured the services of Murad, a local guide, to see us through our eight days in Pakistan – we organised this for a number of reasons, principally security, translation and in order to get the best out of our time here. On the first two counts, absolutely no need: the Northern areas are friendlier and probably safer than anywhere we’ve been to date, and everyone speaks English. But Murad is hilarious, knowledgeable and well-connected; it will be a pleasure to have him in the car during our time here.
We are relieved to reach Gulmit, 12 hours after leaving Tashkorgan; a well tended little village surrounded by lush crops of wheat and a profusion of heavily laden apricot trees, all nestling in a steep valley overlooked by the enormous Ultar Glacier.
Hunza used to be an independent state, ruled by a succession of blue blooded Mirs until they finally acceded to Pakistan in 1974. Hunzas are experts at irrigation: the only possible means of making the land here fertile is to divert the mountain streams and rivers into numerous contour hugging water channels, then use them to irrigate painstakingly terraced fields that line the mountainsides. Hunzas have been doing this for centuries, indeed the only real greenery in the whole of the valley emanates from the villages.
That night we feast on a huge Pakistani spread of lamb with noodles, char grilled chicken, spicy green beans, pilau rice and salads, then fall into a gratefully received and relaxing sleep.
The Chinese factor
The following day we make all haste for Karimabad, Hunza’s capital and home of the Baltit Fort, the residence of the Mirs of Hunza for 700 years until the 1950’s.
The road is slow, but the scenery breathtaking, so it doesn’t really matter. The Chinese are rebuilding the entire length of the Karakoram Highway, at their own cost: predictably not for philanthropic reasons, they have an ulterior motive, which is an efficient land route to Karachi, the Pakistani port in the Arabian sea that they intend to use as a faster means of conveying labour and goods to and from their increasingly far reaching activities in Africa. There is widespread apprehension in Northern Pakistan about this; the acquisitive nature of the Chinese is well understood here and no-one is quite sure what will ultimately become of the expected 300,000 strong Chinese workforce positioned here to finish the road. Anti-Chinese sentiment is strong.
We spend two days in Karimabad, at Murad’s suggestion. Initially we are fearful of how we are going to fill our time, but this doesn’t prove problematic. You can stare at the views all day long here without getting bored: from every vantage point in this town as it sweeps up the mountainside, it is possible to see the enourmous face of Rakaposhi (7,788m) across the valley. Although by no means the highest mountain in the region, it is certainly the most impressive: it rises in a single face over 5km from it’s base above the Hunza River to it’s peak: the tallest single mountain face in the world.
In between gawping in awestruck wonder at this particular peak, we visit the old Baltit Fort, recently restored courtesy of the Aga Khan Foundation (Hunzas are Ismaili Muslims and follow the Aga Khan, they are thus far more liberal and open-minded than their Shia and Sunni counterparts). It is a fine, sympathetic restoration; as we wander through the Mir’s old dining halls, entertaining rooms, sleeping areas and prison it feels as if we are trespassers, catching a sneaky glimpse of the royal household whilst they have gone on an afternoon’s hunting expedition.
We while away our remaining ours walking through the backstreets of Karimabad. Nothing has changed here for centuries except the addition of occasional electric light in some wealthier households. The backstreets are just dusty alleys running alongside the endless contour-hugging water channels, which are the life and soul of every village in this region. The water here runs a silty dark grey at this time of year, courtesy of the alleviate carried from the mineral rich mountains all around. Although the water is essentially clean and unpolluted, long time side effects of drinking it without systematic filtration are severe: most of the old men we see wandering round the town are utterly mad, and generally a combination of blind, deaf and dumb. They stare at us happily and bemusedly, without a care or a rational thought in the world. We ask Murad what happens to the women: they are the same, he says, just kept indoors and out of sight. It seems a sad end to such a wholesome life, but again it seems the Aga Khan is doing his bit: his newly installed water filtration plants look set to ensure this current generation of demented geriatrics is the last.
From Karimabad we follow the still terrible road through yet more entirely agreeable scenery to Gilgit.
We have both read a fair amount of history on the Gilgit rebellion, organised in November 1947 after the British government’s wholeheartedly crass decision to walk away from this area post partition, leaving a 99% Muslim population in the hands of the Hindu Maharaja of Kashmir. One ex-British officer of the Raj, William Brown (barely 25 years old at the time), elected to serve on under the Maharaja to see the area through this rocky transition. He saw sense very quickly and although putting his own life in constant danger, arranged a coup d’etat in Gilgit against the Maharaja, and secured the region’s accession to Pakistan. In doing so he saved an almost certain bloodbath (as happened in the rest of Kashmir) and ensured, more or less, the future peace and prosperity of this region which still holds to date.
It is a treat to be here; more so as our visit fortuitously coincides with Pakistan’s Independence Day: 14th August. We arrive at the parade lawn for the military ceremony and celebrations at 8.15am sharp, ready for the 8.30am start. It turns out proceedings will formally get underway at 10.00am, so we watch the rehearsals, which in many ways are as interesting as the ceremony itself. The poor soldiers in charge of the assembled schoolchildren have the worst job: trying to get 100’s of excited children to stay sat cross-legged and in the right place for two hours is damned hard work, irrespective of whether you have an automatic rifle slung over your shoulder or not…
10.00am arrives; with it the Commander-in-Chief (Northern Areas). Anybody with a military or other interest in this part of the world would be delighted to know that the Gilgit Scouts produce an exemplary Guard of Honour for the C-I-C – exceptionally well drilled and turned out – unlike the rather comical police band which escorts them, shuffling along in an ungainly manner, embarrassingly out of step.
Half way through proceedings, a police officer singles us out and approaches us. On Murad and Ayub’s (Murad’s best mate who has joined us in Gilgit) word, we have been taking dozens of photos; immediately we suspect this may not have been such a good idea…
… But no, he welcomes us warmly and invites us to accompany him to the memorial monuments at the end of the lawn, so that we may get better photos of the formal wreath laying ceremony with all the local dignitaries.
“Take as many photos as you like, please go wherever you want!” he beams enthusiastically. Hugely touched and a little embarrassed - if not for being singled out, then for our lack of dressing suitably for the occasion - we leave our seats and proceed in front of the substantial audience to take up our prime position. Everywhere we look, locals smile and wave at us, as they have done throughout the entire country. It’s impossible to convey how moving this treatment is, in a country where, before entering, we were unsure of the reception we may receive.
Flags and bunting
After the ceremony, on Murad’s suggestion, we buy a large Pakistan flag and attach it to our roof-rack, to the delight of the assembled crowd.
Our final port of call before we leave Gilgit is the old Agency House, home of a succession of British Political Agents pre-1947 and now home of the Chief Commissioner. We had wanted to catch a glimpse of this house, just to see for ourselves the centre of so much of this region’s defining history.
Driving up the hill towards the house, full of exuberance with our new addition to our car, we fail to notice that the Commissioner’s own bunting and flags are fully within range of our proud flag: alas before we can stop, we have acquired several streams of green and white bunting… Security is tight here and the numerous, heavily armed guards on duty are a little confused: it can’t be regular occurrence for them to see a British car, carrying a Pakistani flag, on Independence Day, trashing the Commissioner’s decorations whilst trying to weave through the concrete security barriers. Luckily for us, they are patient and understanding: whilst not hugely amused, they nevertheless allow us a glimpse of the house through the gates (for obvious reasons today we can’t go any further) before suggesting we be on our merry way. Nina and Ayub do a great job fixing the bunting from the top of the car before we leave, and it is smiles and giggles all round as we depart.
Fishing – still no luck
After this little debacle, we spend a happy afternoon in the Ishkoman Valley, fishing with Ayub (an expert) while Murad returns to his home to see his family and prepare supper for us as we are to stay with his family. Once again, we are unsuccessful, though this time our technique is not at fault, it appears a few local lads with nets have been here before us and scared away today’s catch. But the setting is perfect and in the evening we head to Murad’s house in high spirits. His family are charming and generous – supper is a magnificent feast of local chicken and goat curries, cheese chupattis, vegetables and rice.
We really didn’t give enough credit to this country in our planning: our needless security concerns meant we allowed ourselves only eight days here and our onward plans mean we can’t extend this. We could have spent treble the time here, happily.
With three big days driving ahead of us, we leave Murad’s house early to get to Chilas in good order, our final port of call in the mountains. But at only 1,200m, it is has all the bad traits of the plains: a sweltering, humid town with no comfortable amenities. We spend an entirely sleepless night in our thoroughly unpleasant hotel room; it’s antique and deafening air-conditioning system making no impact on a night time temperature that refuses to drop below 37C.
The following day we drive through the wilds of the Babusar Pass, at 4,170m not our highest but easily the most challenging, its mudslides, streams and rocky rivers meaning for the first time we genuinely need our car’s full 4x4 ability. Twelve exhausting hours later, facilitated only by the diverse, stunning beauty of the Kaghan Valley, we arrive in the sweltering oppressiveness of Islamabad. We are now into the plains of the Punjab, North West Frontier Province, and it is very firmly a different country.
That said, we still don’t feel the slightest hint of insecurity and the following day complete our final stretch through the Punjab to the bustle of Lahore, a heaving mass of six million people and our final stopping point before crossing to India.
Pakistan has, surprisingly, been by far and away our favourite country to date and we feel terribly sad to be leaving it so early, especially as we won’t have the chance to revisit it on our return journey. That said, we are already making plans for a return trip in a few years time…